Concussive Time-Skip

On December 21st, I was in the back of a car that was in an accident on a way to work. It was the first time I was in a vehicle that had its airbags deploy. I felt a sense of gratification and immortality and having survive something that totaled 3 cars. All I had was a mild headache. I walked to my office and was fine for a few hours, ish, then had the sudden urge to take a heavy nap. I went to the doctor; turns out I had had a mild concussion and moderate whiplash.

I, naturally, took the rest of the day off. I alerted friends on social media. Some responded with minor concussion stories of their own; some responded with horror stories – “…lingering effects lasting a year later”. I didn’t even remember hitting my head, though thinking back to it now, I don’t remember passing out, because who does? I was in the back of the car that was hit, and had to wake up the driver and front-seat passenger to get them out. So I was better than them, so I must have been fine, right? The accident looked like this:

The accident

t1 = pre-accident
t2 = post-accident

I spent the next 7 days in bed, in a dark room, with no stimulation. The whole point of being sick is watching TV and playing video games. I joked that I wished I had went into a coma instead so I could just skip it until the end, like the reality version of cryosleep. Even if I had a spare thought, I had to turn the lights on to write it down. I got gifted a colouring book later, which I appreciated. I listened to a ton of long-form audio books, detailed in my last post.

Late December/early January is a big time of year for me, a little bit more than most people, because its a confluence of holidays parties where you see some people once/year, one of my oldest friends’ birthdays, and my birthday, and CES, for which my work does a hot new tech demo for that I’m quite involved with. All of which I had to participate in with less enthusiasm or not at all this year.

I’m coming out of symptoms now, though staring too long at a screen or any amount of caffeine or alcohol re-triggers them. I’ve discovered f.lux‘s Dark Room mode for OS X, which shows the screen in monochrome inverted red, which is amazingly easier on my recovering brain.

So I’m calling it a do-over. This last month didn’t count; announcing TIMESKIPDUSTINMAS
Jan 24 – DustinMas Eve
Jan 25 – DustinMas
Jan 31 – New DustinYear’s Eve
Feb 1 – New DustinYear’s Day
Feb 11 – Dustin turns 31
This leap month should solve everything and I look forward to pretending this never happened. I feel this should be a more socially acceptable thing to do for other similar circumstances.

PS. It’s cool that airbags smell like burning fire. That really woke me up quick. I found out later that they are literally fireworks.

PPS. A few of my friends suggested I sue the accident-causer for all their worth. I haven’t had anything that my medical coverage doesn’t deal with with minimal fees, and I feel that people suing other people isn’t good in the grand karma scheme.

PPPS. I was in a Lyft car a the time of the accident. Lyft and the driver have been absolutely awesome during all of this. My driver was stoic and kept it together even though he had to lean on me for a bit. Lyft gave me a bunch of free ride credits after they heard about the accident and I made sure to tell them that it was absolutely not my driver’s fault.

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Books Read 2015

Books listed with date of completion. This was a year with a massive change in reading style. I only read 10 books in 2014, not including texts skimmed for the sake of picking up something for my PhD. All my spare time was saddled with PhD obligations, and spare time outside that I really did not want to spend sitting and reading. Readying suddenly picked up again around May 2015 when I was finally done any major PhD work. I read 34 book this year, tending towards super-long sci-fi books at the end; a genre I feel I’ve missed out on for a couple years.

My favourite book this year was absolutely Peter Watts’ Blindsight and absolutely anyone with an interest in neuroscience or civilization or lived experience or space should read it.

I am currently halfway through Kim Stanley Robinson’s Aurora, so it doesn’t make this list.


The Comic Book Guide To The Mission – Lauren Davis – Jan 17, 2015

Martian Chronicles – Ray Bradbury – Feb 11, 2015

Saga Volume 4 – Brian K. Vaughan & Fiona Staples – Feb 20, 2015

Trickster: Native American Tales: A Graphic Collection – Ed: Matt Dembicki – Mar 8, 2015

Micromegas – Voltaire – April 6, 2015

Un Lun Dun – China Mieville – April 7, 2015

Incandescence – Greg Egan – April 26, 2015

Second Quest – David Hellman & Tevis Thompson – April 29, 2015

Little Brother – Cory Doctorow – May 24, 2015

Foundation – Isaac Asimov – May 29, 2015

Excession – Iain M. Banks – June 10, 2015

Homeland – Cory Doctorow – June 25, 2015

The Martian – Andy Weir – June 26, 2015

Seveneves – Neal Stephenson – June 29, 2015

The Astronauts Must Not Land – John Brunner – July 3, 2015

Player of Games – Iain M. Banks – July 7, 2015

Consider Phlebas – Iain M. Banks – July 13, 2015

Blindsight – Peter Watts – August 8, 2015

Echopraxia – Peter Watts – August 18, 2015

Venture Deals – Brad Feld & Jason Mendelson – Sept 6, 2015

Sacrifice – Sam Humphries & Dalton Rose – Sept 15, 2015

Managing Martians – Donna Shirley – Sept 27, 2015

The Circle – Dave Eggers – Sept 29, 2015

Saga Vol. 5 – Brian K. Vaughan – Oct 11, 2015

Pushing Ice – Alastair Reynolds – Oct 19, 2015

The Canadian in America – Brian D. Wruk & Terry F. Ritchie – Oct 27, 2015

The Space Hero’s Guide to Glory – Nick Hurwitch & Phil Hornshaw – Nov 8, 2015

Leviathan Wakes – James S.A. Corey – Nov 29, 2015

Caliban’s War – James S.A. Corey – Dec 13, 2015

Abaddon’s Gate – James S.A. Corey – Dec 21, 2015

Fatale Volume 1 – Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips – Dec 22, 2015

A Traveler’s Guide to Mars – William K. Hartmann – Dec 25, 2015

The Three Body Problem – Liu Cixin – Dec 27, 2015

The Dark Forest – Liu Cixin – Dec 30, 2015

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Game: SimZilla


2-3 pilots
At least 1 Zilla. Though the Zilla should get tired quickly, so having a lineup of 3-4 Zillas works well.

This game works best in an atrium – it requires a raised platform 3+ meters above the play space for the pilots to stand on. The play space (for The Zilla) is 2 x 2 metres.

1 toy object representing a plane per pilot. I wanted to find toy planes, but could only find soft plush reindeer. You want these to not be too hard or pokey as they’ll be slamming into the Zilla repeatedly.

Enough string or rope to dangle the plane from the pilots down to the Zilla. These will get tangled often, so don’t use thread or fishing wire as those are hard to untangle.

How to Play:
Pilots stand on the platform above the Zilla, directing the motion of the plane by expertly swinging their strings around. The Zilla stands in the playspace below.

The goal of the pilots is to hit the Zilla anywhere except the hands or the front of the game; when this happens, the Zilla is DEAD. If there’s a lineup of Zilla, rotate to the next one.

The goal of the Zilla is to hit the planes as many times as possible with their hands before their inevitable death. Don’t grab onto the planes.
(Optional, for balance with more pilots: when the Zilla hits a plane, the pilot must pull the plane all the way up to them and touch it with their hand before returning it to play)

The restriction on the Zilla (to turn them into a Zilla instead of a human) is that the must keep their elbows touching the sides of their torso. This is pretty effective and the only restriction necessary to totally change how your strategy works.

Pilot Strategy:
Your goal as a pilot is to infuriate and tease the Zilla so much that they get sloppy and make a mistake and let one of you hit them. Big, figure 8 loops and sudden drops are best for disorienting the Zilla. Expect roaring.

Sim Zilla RL

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What’s the best way to transfer money US -> Canada?

All my income is in the States, and all my student debt is in Canada, so I’ll be regularly be transferring pretty hefty sums of money to Canada for probably the next decade.

The support for this is pretty terrible. While money transfer within countries seems very easy, as soon as you cross a border, it becomes un-futuristically awful.

My Canadian bank (CIBC) initially suggested I mail a cheque from my American bank to someone in Canada I trusted, who would then deposit it in my bank account. They’d have to do this once/month. Nope.

The current way I’ve been doing it is via a Paypal account. I transfer money into it from the US, then transfer money out of it to Canada. The turn around time on each of these transactions is 3-5 business days, so I need to plan balances in both accounts two weeks in advance at any given time. Terrible.

For Paypal, each of the two steps to complete the transfer are through a web interface, and it takes about 2 minutes, and I can set a calendar reminder for them. There’s no explicit fee, but I’m aware there can be fees built into the exchange rate. Based on a single data point, it looks like I lose 2% of the market rate reported by each transaction.

I wanted to compare with a Wire Transfer. This entailed me waiting in my US bank for 45 minutes, as two attendants worked on copying a form I’d filled out digitally into another form, and then charged the wrong account. The fee was $60. It took two days to complete (and frankly based on the confusion around what US vs Canadian banks expected, I expected a call saying they’d lost it). And I lost 7% of the market rate

So, Wire Transfers appear to be terrible, and PayPal is the way to go for now. I just wish it was a one-stage, not a two-stage transaction. Am I alone in this? Surely I’m not alone experiencing how stupid this is.

Also, Paypal defaults to showing my balance in Great Britain Pounds, because I started using it while I worked in the UK. So it’s a big currency mess.

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Observations from Spending a Day Mute

I had dental surgery midday Wednesday. It’s totally minor; I now have a small plaster cast in my mouth and it was recommended I don’t talk until Friday to speed up healing.

So I haven’t talked all Wednesday night (where I went to a birthday party for a bit) and all day today at work.

I used the following tools to communicate:
Virtual Voice, a text-to-speech on my Android Phone apparently designed for deaf people.
Slack. Which we normally use at Occipital. When someone would turn to me and speak, I’d listen and then turn and send them an answer on Slack, and they’d either look over my shoulder or be on their way back to their computer if it was the start of a longer conversation that required us to both be sitting in front of our work machines.

Here are the raw observations:

– When you start using hand gestures or a text-to-speech app to communicate, everyone accidentally assumes you’re deaf (even when they know you aren’t) and will start playing charades themselves.

– It’s a bad habit that I tend to interrupt and talk over people impulsively. This (obviously) made me listen to people more. I’d turn away if I was switching from active listening to passive listening mode. Passive listening meaning “I’m looking up or typing the answer to what you’re saying as you’re still speaking”.

– First contact with new people who aren’t aware of my condition is unsettling for both parties. I make eye contact and then immediately open my phone and begin typing away. This obviously comes off as massively rude and I felt shitty every time. I’m supposed to avoid operating heavy machinery while the post-op painkillers, so I’ve been cabbing (via Lyft) back and forth to work. I’d have the message “sorry I can’t talk, I had dental surgery” queued up in my text-to-speech program so I could avoid the awkward moment. Especially when you’re getting in the cab at first and you’re supposed to have the initial transaction of “is this the right car?”

– I tend to speak lots and fast. About 30% of what comes out of my mouth is goofy witticism fluff. This impulse is hard to satisfy when you have a 15 second+ lag on communication when you’re hanging out in a group. Though sometimes it comes off as Fridge Logic, which can be funnier. Sometimes.

– As people I communicated adjusted to my predicament, they got better at constructing their communications as multiple choice questions, e.g. “Give me one finger if you want to play Heart of the Swarm or two fingers for Legacy of the Void”.

– When I did the survey of Android Text-To-Speech tools, I was surprised to note all of them had a single text buffer. I found myself wanting 3-5, or a queue of “most recently used” messages or some sort of autocomplete of previous messages. I could manage all of these mentally, and it was frustrating to feel limited by the app.

– As a show of solidarity/mockery, several coworkers got out speech synthesizers and we shot the shit at the end of the day. I appreciated this.

I look forward to speaking again tomorrow. Though I’d be tempted to take a vow of silence again.

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Tejo is a sport played in Colombia. It’s like curling, except you throw the weights like 60 feet instead of sliding them on the ground. The target is like a sandbox, except it’s filled with clay, and tilted on its side. Inside it, are explosives; little pink triangular envelopes filled with paper. These make very loud booming noises when you hit them, and the whole Tejo hall celebrates. The weights are so heavy and the clay so viscous that you need to pry/dig the weights out.

The admission fee to a Tejo hall is that there is no admission fee. You need to buy a certain number of beers. For the one we went to, in San Gil, Santander, you had to buy 5. The elegance of this is that you aren’t explicitly buying a slot of time. Because by the time you’re done 5 beers you’ve lost any interest in the activity you were doing when you started the beers.

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The Painting — An Immersive iBeacon Theatre Experience Powered by Webble SmartSpot

Here is a first-person walkthrough of an immersive theatre show I did with Joshua Marx, as part of Floodlight Productions.

During the show, the single audience member uses an iPhone in their pocket, with earphones in their ears. Audio cues and events in the show are triggered based on proximity to iBeacons, embedded both in the environment and inside some movable objects.

The iBeacons, donated by Webble, look like this:

2015-07-26 16.11.22

We could even take them out of their plastic casing and embed them in real objects. We laid them out in the environment like this:

Speakeasy with Beacons

During development, the script evolved from a finite state machine model, as in this Google Doc:

Screen Shot 2015-07-26 at 15.52.00

To a listener model, written in JSON:

Screen Shot 2015-07-26 at 15.45.06

The Painting — An Immersive iBeacon Theatre Experience Powered by Webble SmartSpot

Joshua Marx – Writing, Design (
Dustin Freeman – Programming, Design (

To learn more about Webble, visit
Webble: Where the Web meets the World

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A First-Person Tour Inside SNOLAB, a Particle Observatory Two Kilometers Under the Earth

The top of the elevator that goes 2 km deep

Screenshot 2015-08-06 10.13.22

Screenshot 2015-08-06 18.50.40

Dog Food.

Screenshot 2015-08-06 18.58.49

Screenshot 2015-08-06 19.00.31

Screenshot 2015-08-06 19.04.58

Water storage flexible tanks

The ramp for Stephen Hawking

Screenshot 2015-08-06 19.34.46

Wood analogue, as actually wood can't be used in SNOLAB for cleanliness reasons

Screenshot 2015-08-06 19.44.49

Screenshot 2015-08-06 19.47.39

Screenshot 2015-08-06 19.59.41

Screenshot 2015-08-06 20.15.03

Screenshot 2015-08-06 20.14.14

Screenshot 2015-08-06 20.15.03

Screenshot 2015-08-06 20.18.12

Supernova Detector

Screenshot 2015-08-06 20.23.28

The legendary SNOLAB boat!

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Studying Narratives in Small Spaces, Part 2

At the Augmented & Virtual Reality roundtables at GDC 2015, there was consensus that moving a player through space made them uneasy. While in the future, I’m sure we’ll discover interesting tricks to ease the transition, what if we aren’t worried about that, and instead an entire interactive narrative experience happens in a single space?

This multi-part series examines inspirations for interactive narrative design in small spaces. These reviews are going to at times sound oddly mechanistic, as the goal is to focus on moments of potential narrative agency and player interaction. There is a separate movement towards Virtual Reality film, where one would semi-passively take in narrative in a virtual environment, but, as usual, I’m more interested in the interactive stuff.

In this part of our ongoing study, we look at 3 films that take place on boats. Life of Pi, Kon-Tiki, and Lifeboat.

Life of Pi
life of pi above
Life of Pi is the story of a young, religious Indian man shipwrecked on a lifeboat with several dangerous animals, including a Bengal tiger. All the other animals die early in the narrative, leaving just the tiger and the young man aboard the boat. Scared of the tiger, the young man builds a separate raft out of paddles and life jackets, but still connected to the main boat by a rope.

Kon-Tiki is a documentary of the 1947 building and sailing of a raft from Peru to Polynesia by 6 Norwegians. The goal of of the voyage is to prove that it was possible for ancient Peruvians, using only a raft, to colonize Polynesia, in opposition to generally accepted theory that Polynesians came from their west.

Lifeboat, another small-space film by Alfred Hitchcock, is set during World War II, a collection of characters from Allied countries shipwrecked aboard a lifeboat, with one German. Much of the conflict of the crew comes from what to do with the German, especially in light of worsening conditions from lack of food or shelter.

Both Kon-Tiki and Life of Pi have extended preparatory sequences outside the boat for exposition. During the time on the boat, Life of Pi alternates to several decades in the future, where an author is interviewing the protagonist in his living room. The third small space in Life of Pi is a hospital room where the protagonist is again interviewed by representatives of a shipping company. To be much more pure for our purposes, Lifeboat takes place entirely on the boat itself, and I would say the position of the camera never goes more than 10 feet from the boat’s centre, there are not even any sort of establishing shots. Above perspective shots are common in Kon-Tiki and Life of Pi, often to highlight the isolation of the boat in a large ocean.

An initial premise of “shipwrecked” is a convenient mechanic, similar to the amnesia trope common in interactive media – it is plausible enough to the audience, yet allows the creator of the work to setup arbitrary arrangements of characters (who wouldn’t normally associate), supplies and physical environment. The confined space is then set to bake and interesting interactions between characters that may occur. These interesting interactions can be easily avoided in real life, as there’s space to simply walk away, relatively infinite resources, and authorities to appeal to. Unlike the other two works, Kon-Tiki’s crew is intentionally aboard the ship, though eventually we learn they all have surprisingly personal reasons for committing to a voyage whose success is uncertain.

Lifeboat takes place over a few days, but long enough for food and water supplies to become short, and the crew of the boat to lose hope. Kon-Tiki and Life of Pi take place over months, the crew going through several stages of increased hope and despair. A major point of discussion among the crew is what to do with the German, with people either wanting to kill him, and some wanting to keep him as a prisoner of war. It is curious that the latter treat the decision as outside their authority, as the universe is larger than the boat, and their confinement is temporary. Some authority outside this pocket universe will make the decision, later, and somehow that is more ethical than making the decision in the present.

Unlike the confined spaces of the first part of this series, which felt like prisons, the boats in this part are more nuanced. They are prisons, but they are also life-giving. The sea around them is not immediately threatening, and in other circumstances the protagonists would go for a swim, but the boat is that which allows them to stay alive. Few of the characters are afraid of water, with the notable exception of the captain of the Kon-Tiki, who is unable to swim. It seems this is meant to underline his conviction that their voyage will be a success.

The primary actions of people in Kon-Tiki is to maintain the boat itself. There is actually a great deal of work to be done in such a small space, and it is rather inspiring to an interaction designer, from checking the security of the lashed-together logs, to doing a walk around the boat to look for fish, to check lines, to go inside to look at maps. On the other hand, most of the actions in Lifeboat are interpersonal, from trying to guess the contents of others’ pockets, to performing an amputation, to breaking up a fight, to tying suicidal people down. In Life of Pi, it is a mix of both, the tiger is a threat the protagonist must maneuver around and avoid, while maintaining the lifeboat and his sub-life-boat.

Curiously, the protagonist of Life of Pi must keep the tiger well-fed, as otherwise he is afraid the tiger will try to swim out to him in his little raft out of desperation. So, he fishes, and collects fresh water in a tarp on the boat. This is even more interesting, as several times during the exposition, it is pointed out that the protagonist and his family are strict vegetarians. So he must kill animals to feed another being, so it won’t kill him. This is fairly emotionally intense for the protagonist.
However, the tiger does actually jump out, and the protagonist jumps aboard the lifeboat. Now their positions are inversed, and the tiger is unable to get aboard, but the protagonist takes pity on him, feeling the need to still rescue him.
The protagonist explicitly states later that taking care of the tiger, the constant danger, kept him alive, and this subtly ties into the religious themes in the move later.

life of pi boat ticks

Changes over time are shown differently: In Lifeboat, people become more lethargic, sunburned, and familiar – in one case, a marriage proposal and in another case two people who were formerly strangers are straight-up making out in the corner of the boat. In Life of Pi, the protagonist and tiger get unnervingly thin, while supplies dwindle down. The protagonist also mark tallies on the side of the boat (side note: marking a day tally would be a cool save mechanic). To contrast, the passage of time for the Norwegians in Kon-Tiki isn’t presented as dire; they merely get sweet manly blonde sea-beards.


One interesting spatial feature of boats is that interesting things can happen underneath. In both Life of Pi, and Kon-Tiki, something in the water dramatically disappears under one side and then reappears on the other. In both cases, there is a tense scrambling as people run to the other side of the environment. In Kon-Tiki, there is an insanely intense action/combat/rescue sequence where one of the crew members falls over board, while covered in blood, and sharks are around. This is especially notable as all of the 5 people still aboard are engaged in something important simultaneously (fetching a harpoon, steadying a line, pointing at the shark, etc.). There is lots of juicy mechanical stuff to do.


Both Life of Pi and Kon-Tiki had a little over half an hour of exposition outside the small space before they got down to business (from the viewpoint of this review). Kon-Tiki could likely have started directly on the boat, but I feel it would be hard for Life of Pi’s narrative for this to. However, most expository scenes happen without much motion (next to a tiger cage in a zoo, around a family dinner table, in a cafeteria), so it would be feasible to establish the experience of the protagonist with cuts in between.

Stray Notes:

Life of Pi

– Hyena is an aggressive, punk element, though it just seems to be alarmed (it panic-vomits). But then, in a horrifying turn, it eats the Zebra alive, while the protagonist looks on, helplessly, in fear of being hurt himself. The Zerba carcass is left half-eaten on the boat, horrifyingly.
– Through agility, the orangutan avoids the same fate, initially, but then is killed by the Hyena as well.

– Protagonist finds an adorably illustrated manual of the boat. He returns to this many times later, and it contains much practical advice for surviving in the boat for a long period of time. He mentally adds his own passages, trying to normalize his absurd situation (e.g. [If you are sharing the boat with a giant tiger…])

– The protagonist discovers the Tiger can get seasick, and does Pavlovian training with a whistle and turning the boat away and into the waves to moderate how much it rocks. The goal being to have the tiger training the tiger to hate the harsh whistle.

– Both the tiger and the protagonist get noticeably thinner over time. Ways to show change without motion through space, like this, are important to note.
– Makes marks on the side of the boat to pass the days.
– Nice scene where both the protagonist and the tier try to catch parts of a school of flying fish that pass by, fighting for them. Here, foreign elements are invading the space. Finally, the protagonist breaks down and eats fish meat.

– Seeing the tiger, who is normally an extremely alarming badass, terrified of water during a storm, is very disturbing. It feels like it is Not How Things Should Be. Wrong, Against the nature of things. The canary in the coal mine for how fucked things actually are. Later, even when not in the storm, the increasingly docility of the formerly extremely dangerous tiger shows just how fucked things are.

– (Spoilers) of course, all the animals on board are allegories for real people who are at each other’s throats. This is a disgusting, messy truth, less like a fairy tales than if they were all animals, even though the amount of death and suffering is the same. As the sole witness of what happened, it is the responsibility of the protagonist to tell the story, but also to suffer the story. The telling is the suffering is the living.


– The raft has a small interior, which is a nice contrast to the outside, which acts as a sort of wraparound verandah. People on opposite sides of the raft are unable to see each other directly, which could provide some environmental variety (and privacy).

– There is a strong concern that the boat itself will not survive the trip. The setting as a flawed character, who will likely die, is a strong theme. In fact, when they finally do arrive in Polynesia, it is a crash landing, and the raft falls apart, having served its purpose.

– At one point, a smaller raft is drifted away from the main rift for the purposes of photography. How crazy lonely that would feel, to leave your already small space.


– At the beginning, the lifeboat is surrounded by the wrecked contents of a ship, and the crew is grabbing a bunch of random items out of the water if they want it! A tennis racket has been added to your inventory! A camera! Random shit you don’t need, but it’s floating by, so might as well grab it! People are excited about the stuff they saved from the wreck (starting inventory). One guy managed to save some cigars, which he is proud of.

– Another failing raft comes over and dumps its occupants on board. Both the inventory grabbing and the second raft are nice ways to add stuff to an otherwise static environment.

– One lady comes aboard, shellshocked from a previous incident, with a drowned baby she refuses to let go. The crew conspires (out of earshot, which is damn difficult on a tiny lifeboat) to get rid of the baby when she is asleep. SMALL SPACE DRAMA CAN GET PRETTY REAL.

– The mother jumped overboard over night, apparently. It is apparent from the taut rope overboard. May be possible someone witnessed it, but didn’t stop her.

– One African American on board. He’s asked his opinion on the German, and quips “Oh, I get to vote too!?”. Ah, early US racism comedy.

– British guy has previous shipwrecked experience. Was on there for 43 days, but less optimistic about this one, given lack of supplies. Has that stout British upper air sense of self reliance and keeping calm (don’t say or think it).

– Soon-to-be amputee quickly downs a ton of alcohol as they prepare to cut off his leg. Begins laughing, hitting on everything with legs. Which includes in asking for a kiss from the journalist, just after doing a sad monologue about how his girlfriend back home may not take him back if he has a missing leg. It’s pretty cute.

– Like 5 people have to keep their hands around a flame to keep it lit enough to heat up the amputation knife. A nice physical body cooperation moment.

– One woman’s sense that their chance of survival is unclear makes her want to find someone on the crew to confess that she had an affair with a married man before. No one cares.

– The German has a secret compass. An inventory item you can only use while out, but need to hide from other crew members in close proximity, is pretty darn interesting.

– Two guys start playing poker, purely based on IOUs of money, on cards they made themselves by tearing paper and writing ink on it. The IOUs are carved in the wood of the boat with a knife. The amounts of money gets insane, like $80,000, based on the IOU marks. At a critical moment, a bunch of cards are blown overboard, mostly the hand of the guy claiming to be the winner. A fight breaks out.

– (Spoilers) Initially, the one German survivor is excused of his actions because he’s “just some German”. Later, they find out he is the captain of the U-boat. Does this make him more responsible? No, he was just following orders, like everyone else. But then it turns out he was hiding food, and a compass, and steering the boat in a wrong direction! And then, at the end, another, extremely young German comes aboard. Should we trust him or is he just a kid?

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Studying Narratives in Small Spaces, Part 1

At the Augmented & Virtual Reality roundtables at GDC 2015, there was consensus that moving a player through space made them uneasy. While in the future, I’m sure we’ll discover interesting tricks to ease the transition, what if we aren’t worried about that, and instead an entire interactive narrative experience happens in a single space?

This multi-part series examines inspirations for interactive narrative design in small spaces. These reviews are going to at times sound oddly mechanistic, as the goal is to focus on moments of potential narrative agency and player interaction. There is a separate movement towards Virtual Reality film, where one would semi-passively take in narrative in a virtual environment, but, as usual, I’m more interested in the interactive stuff.

In the first part of this series, we’ll look at two mysteries, Rear Window and The Lady Vanishes, both by Alfred Hitchcock, and one movie that is an action-mystery (?), Snowpiercer.

Rear Window
rear window

A photojournalist is confined to his apartment after breaking his legs. Bored, and becoming stir-crazy, he uncharacteristically fills his time by watching his neighbours out his rear window. Based on subtly suspicious behaviour, he suspects one of his neighbours of murder, and has to convince his able-bodied social connections to investigate for him. The entirety of the viewpoint of the story takes places in the protagonist’s apartment.

The Lady Vanishes
the lady vanishes

A tourist is returning from a vacation to her native England. After she bumps her head while boarding a train, she is aided by a plain older woman. When the tourist awakes from a nap, the old woman is gone, and no one on the train remembers seeing her. The tourist begins to doubt her memory while scouring the train and its occupants for any evidence of the old woman, all while accused of being delusional. The film begins with a little under half an hour of character exposition with an ensemble cast in a hotel before we board the train, and spend most of the time going back and forth between three cars (dining, cabin, cargo).


A fully self-contained train is in constant motion on a track around an Earth plunged into freezing by an apocalypse 17 years previously. The train is about 1000 cars long, and arranged in social hierarchy from the poor people in the tail section, to the rich at the front. The story follows the leader of a revolt starting in the tail section, trying to gain access to the less-crowded front sections. We follow the protagonist from the rear of the train all the way to its front.

In all cases, there is a sense that the confinement in the environment is unnatural and unsettling, and that what the protagonist witnesses or believes may not be the truth. This is made worse by their confinement; they are restricted from verifying facts for themselves by the environment; in this way, the environment is self is a secondary antagonist.

Both The Lady Vanishes and Snowpiercer take place on trains, however individual scenes, whether action-oriented or not, all take place in single cars. To be practical, you could start each positionally-tracked VR scene in a new car, and then have whatever transition you’d like between them, as they are relatively rare. The individual train cars in both movies have a drastically different feel to them, especially Snowpiercer, whose train cars sport a high variety of style.

In The Rear Window, the protagonist is trapped in his space, most of the time in his wheelchair, and all the action happens outside, him being the primary witness and powerlessly and tenuously interacting with the outside.

Both Rear Window and Snowpiercer take place over an extended period of time, while The Lady Vanishes only skips time when the protagonist dozes off. The initial tension of the first two comes from being stuck, but in The Lady Vanishes, it comes from a disappearance and that everyone else on the train believes the protagonist is mentally ill. Because the space is confined and very finite, the protagonist asserts that the missing person must be on the train, as it hasn’t stopped, and begins an exhaustive search for clues.

In our regular non-dramatic lives, the average human being spends much of their time in confined spaces, whether at home or at work. To contrast, the primary action in most interactive narratives is to move through space; in interactive narrative where you’re a silent protagonist, moving your body may be one of the only ways you can express yourself and advance the plot. I couldn’t find the reference, but Ben “Yahtzee” Croshaw has previously expressed the work of video game players as moving characters around on dolly carts, shoving them together in the right combinations to induce conversations that further the plot (in his video game analysis show Zero Punctuation).

In both The Lady Vanishes and Rear Window, the protagonists have a strong conviction which everyone else doubts, and they at times themselves doubt, but they slowly bring people over to their side. I’m not well-versed enough in Hitchcock to know if this is common in his works. I wonder how it would be possible to have self-doubt of a conviction in an interactive mystery narrative. Usually, the way it goes is “The thing that happened is X, collect the evidence and (if it’s undetermined) figure out who did it”. The narrative push of the game would cease to exist if the player/protagonist determined that the result is “everything is fine, nothing to worry about”, as all the other characters in the Hitchcock mysteries insist. Curiously, in both cases, if the characters gave up their convictions, no harm would come to them, as the problem they’re trying to solve in no way directly affects them, and they only come in harm’s way through their insistence. I like the agenda Hitchcock is peddling, though it could be construed as “your hunch convictions are always correct no matter how much evidence you get against them, initially”.

The interactions between the protagonist and their environments vary significantly. In The Lady Vanishes, most of the interaction is social, though one clue-hunting sequence suddenly turns, surprisingly, into a combat sequence. Snowpiercer, after exposition, is mostly combat, with breaks where a series of increasingly important secondary protagonists will pontificate, then be disposed of, oddly reminiscent to the progress of any *-Shock game. In Rear Window, the apartment is static and safe, while dynamic and dangerous events happen outside it, until a break of this established pattern in the finale. The protagonist has social interactions inside the apartment (convincing visitors of his convictions, other storyline interactions) and has to observe the outside very carefully for clues, using both his binoculars and telephoto lens. At one point, the protagonist has to direct the movements of another character trying to escape the antagonist in a Scooby-Doo like sequence across several stories.

rear window Scooby Doo

In the modern day, texting would be used for coordination, but here it is through aggressive gesturing. Curiously, the characters that the protagonist is directing across the way don’t always listen to him, and take risks even when he explicitly instructs them not to. This loose control of another character, with their own impulses, would be cool to explore in an interactive medium, and it supplements the loss of control that the main character already feels. The final interaction available to the protagonist is no doubt designed to comically highlight their helplessness yet again: a long wooden scratch stick to get underneath his cast. The act of scratching is shown to be the most physically strenuous task of his day. Designing this with a quicktime event would no doubt excite David Cage.

Stray Notes:

Rear Window

– A series of observed events occur, without any verbalization, where the main character dozes off and wakes up during a single night, and sees the comings and goings of people. It is uncertain how much time passes between these dozings. In one case, we’re shown a brief scene while the protagonist is shown to be asleep, an unsettling break in the consistent first-person viewpoint for the first time in the movie (around the 36 minute mark). This is the only moment in the film where the viewers see something that the protagonist doesn’t.
– The line “why don’t I slip into something more comfortable” appears. It’s too early in the history of film, so this comes off as completely innocent to the trope. Also, “please make me a sandwich”.
– The movie starts with him watching a lady across the way dancing to herself in pink lingerie.
– The protagonist is afraid of marriage, which is metaphorically treated as imprisonment, like being stuck in this apartment.
– The theme of captivity comes back again, where the protagonist and his fiancee are in love, but captive in their own worlds. His in always wanting to travel, her in her high-end New York lifestyle.
– People are able to enter the protagonist’s space without his warning or consent (other people seem to have keys, or the door is unlocked). This is pretty unnerving.
– Later, the protagonist convinces someone, who is able to actually walk around in the world, that something is up that needs general investigating. Since this is the 50s, they communicate by landline. Interestingly, were this a video game, the player would take the role of the person moving around in the world accomplishing errands, while a disembodied voice gave them assignments. In fact, the character on the phone who is out doing stuff in this movie refers to their tasks as “assignments”.
– The protagonists’ camera flash is used as a weapon (Hey there Beyond Good & Evil).
– The protagonist looking into other people’s windows, through frames into private lives, feels very much like the gaze through the frame of a film into the character’s lives themselves. The Rear Window is about film, duuuuuuude.

The Lady Vanishes

the lady vanishes 2

– This is the first appearance of Charters and Caldicott, two British characters obsessed with cricket, regardless of the gravity of their current situation. They went on to appear in several films and their own TV series.
– Nice clue mechanic: the protagonist recalls that the missing (and possibly non-existent) old woman wrote her name on a window in the dining car. She tries to find this again, but writing on a window turns out to be a short-lived form of proof. This is a nice moment for the protagonist to convince herself that she is not insane (maybe), but still insufficient to convince anyone else.

snowpiercer ponty

– The poor people (in the back of the train) have no idea what goes on in the forward cars, or even what they look like. There’s one clever bit when the train turns around a tight corner, and people can see each other (and shoot at each other) from several cars apart.
– More so than The Lady Vanishes, the cars’ dimensions are all identical, but the difference of their interiors highlights the massive social differences in the train society.

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